Team: New York Giants
2008 record: 12-4
What's the story? For a change, it's not Plaxico Burress, who shot his odd career in the leg. The Giants spent more time last season insisting Burress wasn't a distraction than they did preparing for the stretch run. Now, this team can embrace its identity: A gutty, devastating running game, still three-headed despite the loss of Derrick Ward; a pass rush that devours QBs; and a QB who occasionally makes the plays he was drafted to make. Make all the jokes you like, but when you build a team like that, and you're patient with it weekly, it wins.
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
2008 record: 9-6-1
What's the story? An unlikely playoff run, one made possible by, of all things, the tie, has the cognoscente missing the point. The Eagles have been pretty good for 9 years in large part because of their offensive tackles, Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. Both now are gone. Their replacements, Jason Peters and Shawn Andrews, might be upgrades, and the line might be very good, but preseason injuries will make the first 4 weeks of the season the testing ground for that possibility. The losses of S Brian Dawkins (free agency), MLB Stewart Bradley (knee) and coordinator Jim Johnson, who died of cancer, make the Birds a big gamble.
Team: Dallas Cowboys
2008 record: 9-7
What's the story? Terrell Owens is gone, leaving Roy Williams to make the passing attack his own. Except Williams isn't the player the Pokes hoped he was when they traded for him last season, and he has already suffered a shoulder injury in the preseason. This sort of pressure is toxic for Williams, a Texas native, and it doesn't wear well with glamour QB Tony Romo. TE Jason Whitten might be the best offensive player they have, but, as usual, the Cowboys will be all about owner Jerry Jones. As usual, the Cowboys will suffer for it.
Team: Washington Redskins
2008 record: 8-8
What's the story? Right around Week 8, when DT Albert Haynesworth has played 75 percent of the Redskins' defensive snaps, he will disappear. And then, the questions start coming: Why give him $100 million and bolster an already-formidable defense when the offense still stinks? Those questions will linger the rest of the season, as the overworked defense wears down, as overrated QB Jason Campbell crumples for the 40th time behind a suspect offensive line, as the wide-receiving corps remains a nonthreat and as second-year head coach Jim Zorn suffers the wrath of meddling owner Dan Snyder, whose fault it never is.
Team: Minnesota Vikings
2008 record: 10-6
What's the story? Brad Childress needs to win, so he did what any leader would do in a time of distress: He hired a mercenary. That it is motivated, reconstructed Brett Favre only adds to the intrigue. Already, Favre — who repeatedly denied his second unretirement — has an injury to dramatize (rib). This season he will play alongside the best offensive weapon he's ever had, RB Adrian Peterson, the league's dominant offensive player. If rookie WR Percy Harvin can hold on to Favre's ego throws over the middle, the sound defense could make Childress a very wanted man.
Team: Chicago Bears
2008 record: 9-7
What's the story? Finally, an offense that might match the defense. Or eclipse it. The Broncos' incredible shuttling of Jay Cutler to Chicago, where he replaces Kyle Orton, means that Bears fans no longer have to spend 30 minutes of the game holding their breath, hoping the offense doesn't lose it. Cutler has a wealth of youth from which to choose, including a real RB in Matt Forte, a promising TE in Greg Olsen, perhaps the league's next star at the position. Imagine: a Bears team on which Brian Urlacher is not the only significant entity.
Team: Green Bay Packers
2008 record: 6-10
What's the story? The story is, they're not picked to finish last because the worst team in NFL history plays in their division. RB Ryan Grant's sophomore season was a disappointment. QB Aaron Rodgers' ascension to starter after the incredible saga of ridding themselves of Brett Favre seemed successful — 28 TDs, 93.8 passer rating — but he took 34 sacks, and that's a lot of squelched drives. Add to the mix that the Packers are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, and there are too many unknowns to assume the Packers can improve. And there's this: Favre is going to try to stick it to them twice this season.
Team: Detroit Lions
2008 record: 0-16.
What's the story? Right. It's surreal to look at, isn't it: 0-16. That record shouldn't taint this club, since they've added nine significant new players plus rookie QB Matt Stafford. The departure of bombastic GM Matt Millen and his coterie might not matter much now, but the professionalism imparted by former Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, the new head coach, will help change the culture. Then again, with so much turnover and with a rookie QB, significant change for the better will come slowly.
Team: Atlanta Falcons
2008 record: 11-5
What's the story? Matt Ryan, baby. The Penn Charter product is everything you want in a quarterback, and, this year, more people will know about it. In 16 starts he was sacked just 17 times and threw 11 interceptions, playing in place of incarcerated franchise mistake Michael Vick. Ryan was wonderfully protected — extra blockers on and off the field (the Falcons' PR staff kept him away from the NFL's withering coverage) — was handed limited responsibility and was absolutely stunning when given the chance. He's drawing raves from teammates, opponents and analysts. He can't miss; in a year, he could be Tom Brady. Oh, yeah: The defense is good and they got TE Tony Gonzalez, the best ever.
Team: Carolina Panthers
2008 record: 12-4
What's the story? Continued regular-season aptitude, postseason ineptness. If anyone had a question about the Panthers' moxie, all they needed to witness was Jake Delhomme's six-turnover gift to the Cardinals that greased Arizona's run to the Super Bowl. It again will be impossible to blow up this group of non-prime-time players after another season of double-digit wins, especially as DeAngelo Williams continues to develop at RB, but coach John Fox and Delhomme and WR Steve Smith have become the tired show the Colts were before Tony Dungy's arrival.
Team: New Orleans Saints
2008 record: 8-8
What's the story? Somehow, the Saints managed to waste one of the best offensive seasons in the history of the NFL. They should have won four more games, maybe five, but poor, reactive, placid defense kept other teams in games. If new coordinator Gregg Williams can fix that, the Saints could go deep into the postseason. But Williams was given little more than aging S Darren Sharper to improve the D. That, and a new, aggressive philosophy, probably won't be enough to bolster Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and a superb offensive line.
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 record: 9-7
What's the story? The weird dismissal of pedigreed head coach Jon Gruden and the resultant promotion of 32-year-old defensive coordinator Raheem Morris to replace Gruden pretty much let the NFL world know: Tampa Bay is a long way from being relevant. Then the Bucs allowed QB Jeff Garcia to walk and signed fragile TE Kellen Winslow, which let the NFL world know they're deluded. Still, with a punishing running game, if the Bucs stay conservative, they could be ... well, maybe not.
Team: Arizona Cardinals
2008 record: 9-7
What's the story? Eventually, teams figure out that if you get to Kurt Warner and bang him around, he throws interceptions and becomes a bad quarterback. If defenses return to the strategy that always has worked against him — don't sell out with blitzes, take away the quick-hitting, Arena-league stuff and let him make his mistakes — the Cardinals, without a stitch of defense themselves (especially pass defense), will struggle, even in the NFC West. If those defenses don't learn this, the Cards could sneak back into the playoffs. There, as they showed last season, anything can happen.
Team: San Francisco 49ers
2008 record: 7-9
What's the story? A solid defense will make the Niners competitive. It might even win them some games. But with an offensive line that allowed a league-high 55 sacks last season, and without a quarterback who can make remarkable plays, the Niners are shooting for mediocrity again. QB Shaun Hill, chosen over more talented Alex Smith because Hill turns it over less, is not the man to turn around a franchise. Neither is RB Frank Gore, since he will see attention this season like never before. Head coach Mike Singletary will make headlines, but not because his team is good.
Team: Seattle Seahawks
2008 record: 4-12
What's the story? There's more than Mike Holmgren to blame, though his mismanagement could cripple the franchise for years. Jim Mora Jr. ascended to take over a team still run by QB Matt Hasselbeck, whose career Holmgren made. Free agent RB Julius Jones was a semi-bust last season, mainly because of his crucial fumbles. He'll be part of an RB-by-committee attack, and with Hasselbeck fortified by the addition of playmaking WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks, playing in the NFC West, won't be abysmal. Just not good.
Team: St. Louis Rams
2008 record: 2-14
What's the story? The latest Andy Reid/Jim Johnson offspring, former Eagles defensive assistant and former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, has a monstrous job rebuilding a recently dominant franchise that won five games the last two seasons. With high-character rookies to build around — T Jason Smith and LB James Laurinaitis — the club is going about it the right way. Spags will import a discipline and accountability not seen in St. Louis since Dick Vermeil's departure, but he can't import enough talent for the Rams to be a winner quickly.